We’ve all heard it a million times: “It’s not WHAT you know; it’s WHO you know.”
While I don’t believe this entirely (to me, it’s both what you know and who you know), I definitely agree that having a strong professional network is a critically important part of creating career success.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t think about expanding their network until they need something—like a job. But I encourage you to be proactive. Building a strong professional network doesn’t happen overnight, and these relationships are useful for more than just job search assistance. Your network can provide much needed guidance, support and wisdom—from a professional perspective of course.
One of the most common challenges I hear from my coaching clients is that they don’t know how to make new connections. They know it’s important, but they wonder: “Where do you go to expand your professional network?”
Here are three of my favorite ways to go about doing this. I’ve used these strategies personally with great success, as have my clients. They’re all “easy” but you have to be willing to commit your time and energy (and occasionally a few bucks as well). Don’t let that deter you. The power of a strong professional network makes it worthwhile. Put another way: The “return on your investment” is enormous!
1. Join a Professional Association
I know I sound like a broken record with this one since I say it ALL THE TIME, but clearly, I believe in its power. Associations are a great way of meeting new people with whom you have something (professionally) in common.
You’ll be amazed by the number of options available. Associations exist for almost every position and every industry. There are also various groups based around other identifying characteristics—for example: young professionals, women in business, minority groups, etc. Do your research and you’ll find a hefty handful that might work for you.
I always recommend attending a few meetings before committing to membership. You want to make sure the group is for you. Also, if you’re using this primarily for networking purposes, make sure it’s big enough to really give you a wide array of folks to get to know. If it’s too small, or the people aren’t what you’re looking for, it’s not worth the investment.
Once you’ve found an association that works for you, be sure to regularly attend meetings and participate. Don’t be a wallflower or an observer. Get involved. Join a committee or run for a leadership position. Like most things in life, the more you put into your experience, the more you’ll get out of it.
2. Attend Networking Events
This one almost goes without saying and yet, a lot of people don’t take advantage of it. If you’re looking to expand your network, there are tons of events (organized by various groups) specifically for this purpose. Most are very reasonably priced (under $30) and they’re often centered around a fun event like happy hour at a local pub.
In my experience, networking events can be hit or miss. I’ve definitely attended some that weren’t worth the time or energy. But once you’ve been to a few, you’ll start to recognize the ones that attract big groups of high-quality people. In my area, for example, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce hosts some great events. In your area, it might be the chamber or some other local organization. Ask around and start exploring. You really won’t know what works best for your needs until you try it for yourself.
Make a commitment to attend a specific number of networking events each month, and set a goal for the number of new connections you’ll make. Remember though: It’s quality over quantity. Don’t blanket the room with your business card. Focus on having authentic conversations.
3. Volunteer In Your Community
This is yet another recommendation I seem to make over and over again. The great thing about volunteering is that it offers a lot of positive benefits. Besides making you feel good, regularly volunteering in your community is an excellent way to grow your network.
Once again, I suggest that you do your research first. Different organizations attract different kinds of people. If you’re a young professional, you don’t necessarily want to spend your time volunteering with retired folks.
Personally, I volunteer with Colorado Youth at Risk, in a program called Steps Ahead. This program pairs adult mentors with teens who need a little extra support and guidance to finish high school. My group has 40 adults and 40 teens, and the larger organization has hundreds of people involved throughout the state. It took me a long time to find the organization that really spoke to me and matched my personal values. I did a lot of exploration before making the commitment and I know it was the right choice for a variety of reasons. My fellow mentors are all amazing people who share my values and have similar personal goals. I’ve made great business contacts and a lot of friends through this process. And the relationships are built on a meaningful, shared life experience—there’s nothing more powerful than that.
A Final Thought…
You’ll notice that all of these recommendations require face-to-face contact. That’s because I truly believe that in-person networking is the most effective for building relationships. It’s not always the easiest—staying home in front of your computer and jumping on LinkedIn is much more convenient. And of course, there’s a place for online networking as well. But nothing makes a more lasting impression than a handshake and a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Need proof? Give it a try and see for yourself.
Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out the Networking Naturally e-book.